Summer box office sizzles

Hollywood hits record revenue, but ticket sales fall short

— Hollywood delivered a nice blend of big, dumb popcorn flicks and smarter-than-average summer fare, adding up to an all-time revenue high but falling short of a ticket-sales record.

By today, Labor Day, domestic ticket sales will have totaled about $3.15 billion since Memorial Day weekend, surpassing the record of $3.06 billion set last summer, according to box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations.

Factoring in higher ticket prices, movie admissions this summer likely will come in slightly lower than last year's $542 million and well below the modern record of $589 million set in 1999, said Paul Dergarabedian, Exhibitor Relations president.

Summer 1999 benefited from a late-season surge as "The Sixth Sense" and "The Blair Witch Project" hit theaters. This summer was more typical, with ticket sales fading in late July and August as audiences moved on to other preoccupations than the next movie blockbuster.

"I truly believe it's cultural. Our world changes by the seasons," said Tom Sherak, a partner in Revolution Films, which produced the summer hit "XXX." "School is starting, the weather changes and you start staying in more. The leaves change, and you just go into a different mode that affects what you do for leisure time."

Topping the summer bill was "Spider-Man," which smashed opening-weekend box-office records in early May and hit No. 5 on the all-time list with $404 million domestically.

"Star Wars: Episode II � Attack of the Clones" grossed $300 million, the first installment of George Lucas' sci-fi franchise that failed to become the year's biggest hit.

Beyond "Spider-Man" and "Star Wars," lowbrow comedies and explosive action pictures led the way, among them "Austin Powers in Goldmember," "Men in Black II," "Scooby-Doo," "Mr. Deeds" and "XXX."

Smarter, edgier films also clicked with audiences, with "Signs," "Minority Report," "The Bourne Identity" and "The Sum of All Fears" offering a good mix of action and quality.

"Road to Perdition" was the summer's class act, a critical and commercial success that earned solid Academy Awards buzz.

"It was a pretty high quality summer," Dergarabedian said.

On the down side, Eddie Murphy delivered the season's biggest bomb, the sci-fi comedy "The Adventures of Pluto Nash." Al Pacino starred in one of early summer's sleeper successes, "Insomnia," but he tanked later with the Hollywood satire "Simone."

"My Big Fat Greek Wedding" proved the most out-of-the-blue sleeper hit in years, an independent film shot on a tiny $5 million budget that opened in limited release in April and continues to gather steam nearly five months later. The film, about a Greek-American woman's raucous nuptials, has a shot at topping $100 million.

"I've been in this business for 15 years, and it's the most amazing film I've worked on," said Rob Schwartz, head of distribution for IFC Films, which released "Greek Wedding." "The thing is, you could substitute almost any ethnicity and it works. It could be an Italian wedding, a Jewish wedding. It speaks to everyone."

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